'The Quilts of Gee's Bend'

A Showcase of Distinctive Work by African-American Artists

Bars and String-Piece Columns, 1950s, cotton, 95x76 inches, by Jessie T. Pettway (b. 1929)

Bars and String-Piece Columns, 1950s, cotton, 95x76 inches, by Jessie T. Pettway (b. 1929) Photo by Steve Pitkin/Pitkin Studios/Tinwood Alliance collection, Atlanta, Ga. hide caption

itoggle caption Photo by Steve Pitkin/Pitkin Studios/Tinwood Alliance collection, Atlanta, Ga.
Sewing a Quilt. Gee’s Bend, Alabama

Sewing a Quilt. Gee’s Bend, Alabama, 1937 Photo by Arthur Rothstein/Farm Security Administration/Office of War Information Collection, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress hide caption

itoggle caption Photo by Arthur Rothstein/Farm Security Administration/Office of War Information Collection, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress
'Housetop' - Four-Block Variation

'Housetop' - four-block variation, circa 1965, cotton and cotton/polyester blend, 77x82 inches, by Mary L. Bennett (b. 1942) Steve Pitkin/Pitkin Studios/Tinwood Alliance collection, Atlanta, Ga. hide caption

itoggle caption Steve Pitkin/Pitkin Studios/Tinwood Alliance collection, Atlanta, Ga.

A new exhibit brings to light the brilliant, bold and dynamic quilts created by a group of women who live in the isolated, African-American hamlet of Gee's Bend, Ala. Like many American quilters, the women transformed a necessity into a work of art — but their innovative and often minimalist approach to design is unique.

"The compositions of these quilts contrast dramatically with the ordered regularity associated with many styles of Euro-American quiltmaking. There's a brilliant, improvisational range of approaches to composition that is more often associated with the inventiveness and power of the leading 20th-century abstract painters than it is with textile-making," says Alvia Wardlaw, curator of Modern and Contemporary Art at the Museum of Fine Arts.

The 60 quilts in the exhibition, created by 42 women spanning four generations, provide a fascinating look at the work of 20th-century artists who lived and worked in solitude. Gee's Bend is located in southwest Alabama on a sliver of land five miles long and eight miles wide, a virtual island surrounded by a bend in the Alabama River. Without a ferry service for decades, the residents were confined by the river unless they made the hour-long drive to the county seat of Camden, directly across the river from Gee's Bend.

Gee's Bend was named after Joseph Gee, the first white man to stake a claim there in the early 1800s. The Gee family sold the plantation to Mark Pettway in 1845. Most of the approximately 750 people who live in Gee's Bend today are descendants of slaves on the former Pettway plantation. Their forebears continued to work the land as tenant farmers after emancipation, and many eventually bought the farms from the government in the 1940s. Isolated geographically, the women in the community created quilts from whatever materials were available, in patterns of their own imaginative design.

The exhibition is organized by the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston. The quilts in the exhibition are drawn from the collection of Tinwood Alliance, a nonprofit foundation for the support of African-American vernacular art. The Quilts of Gee's Bend is on display through March 9, 2003, at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York, after premiering in the fall of 2002 at the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston.

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